Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Fantasy Review: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

I finished the last 200 pages of Words of Radiance yesterday in style, stretched out on the back deck with that massive 1100 page hardcover resting heavily upon my chest. I don't often get to relax like that with a book, so it was nice to have the opportunity to properly enjoy the climax of Brandon Sanderson's latest. The only problem with finishing it like that (or at all) is having to somehow wrap my head around how to approach a review.

Well, let's step back for a moment and put things into context. As excited as I was by the book's pending release, and as hard as I lobbed for an advance review copy, I was a bit hesitant about diving in. I thoroughly enjoyed The Way of Kings, and am a big Brandon Sanderson fan in general, but A Memory of Light left me with some concerns. I felt that was a big, bloated book that really struggled from the effort to stretch what Jordan planned as a final novel into a trilogy. As much as I knew that was likely more of a marketing decision than a creative one, I still came away from that book tired, frustrated, and disappointed. Even knowing that Words of Radiance was a personal epic, far closer to Sanderson's heart, I still had to wonder how much of that bloat and padding might be responsible for the book's size.

I am delighted (not to mention astonished) to say that is most certainly not the case. Sandserson described Words of Radiance as "an entire trilogy of novels bound together into one volume" and that sums it up perfectly. Yes, an 1100 page novel is massive, but when you approach it as an omnibus edition of three smaller novels, you get a much better sense of just how carefully and tightly plotted the entire thing is. There's a lot going on, but very little in the way of wasted pages, and almost nothing of the narrative bloat I had feared.

With all that's going on here, I won't even try to summarize or even touch on all the elements. Instead, I'd like to talk a bit about the pair of characters who lie at the heart of the story - Kaladin and Shallan - and the ripples they cast upon the larger sea of words.

As heroes go, Kaladin is appropriately frustrating. It's hard to call him a reluctant hero, but that is (in essence) what he is. Yes, he's an eager soldier, a passionate leader, and proud warrior, but his past is constantly gnawing at him, preventing him from revealing too much of himself. He knows he's a hero at heart, and he longs to embrace that role, but he spends most of the book holding himself back. Rather than be frustrating, however, the ways in which Sanderson explores the internal dilemmas is fascinating. Yes, he still spends a lot of time wallowing in self-pity, but we get to watch as Kaladin's shell begin to show cracks, forcing him to confront those feelings while turning him into a far more well-rounded character than we've known in the past.

Even more interesting is the way in which his loyalties are tested, with him honestly struggling between what he knows to be right, and what he wants to be right. His scenes with Shallan add some much-needed levity to his character; the ways in which his awkward sparring with Adolin evolves from mutual mistrust to almost friendship is a key element of the tale; and the finale in which he resolves his conflicted loyalties regarding Dalinar and Elhokar is nothing short of brilliant. I was a bit concerned for a while, when it appeared Sanderson was going to let him off the hook and free him from making the big decision, but when his relationship with Syl is significantly altered, it becomes clear that he is going to have to man up, own up, and suck it up in making the hard choices.

Knowing that Shallan would be a main character here had me cringing a bit, as I didn't particularly care for her role in The Way of Kings, but she really steps things up here. She is a character who grows and evolves as well, most significantly through her role as the criminal conspirator, Veil. I wondered how Sanderson would approach her courtship with Adolin, and was pleasantly surprised to see that dance bring out new facets to both characters, making them both far more likable to the reader. As we find out, Shallan clearly has a massive role to play in the fate of the world, one that goes far beyond merely being Jasnah's student. Unlike Kaladin, she's very much an eager hero, anxious to prove herself and fulfill the work that Jasnah, regardless of cost, and that sets up a crucial series of events that really drive the climax into the next volume.

Her presence changes the entire tone of the story, and helps to shift not just Dalinar's plans, but the entire plot, pushing things towards the long-simmering conflict we've been waiting to see realized. Although she comes to the plains as an outsider, she quickly immerses herself in her adopted world, insinuating herself into plots far and wide. Admittedly, I was concerned that her role Veil was just a convenient way to bring her up to speed with the politics of the camps but, as we find out towards the end, that role will have significant consequences in the next volume (and possibly beyond). As I mentioned earlier, her scenes with Kaladin are fantastic, and their flight through the chasms, chased by chasmfiend and highstorm alike, marks a turning point for all. She is also responsible for one of the grandest set-pieces in the entire saga to date, but to say much more about that would be to spoil the climax.

Aside from the characters, I think what really amazed me here as the way in which Sanderson brings all the threads of the overriding mythology together. Up to this point it's all been hints, suspicions, and contradictory assumptions. We knew about the Spren, the Voidbringers, the Knights Radiant, the Parshendi, the Stormfather, the Shardblades, and so on, but it was never clear just what exactly they were or how they were all connected. The back story to all of that was a challenge, to say the least, but we start getting some answers (and some big answers) here. Clearly, there is still more to be revealed, but what Sanderson offers here is enough 'ah-ha' and 'oh, wow' moments to really flesh out the magic of the tale, and to drive home the true 'epic' nature of the narrative.

Upon turning the final page, I was left stunned and in awe by what Brandon Sanderson accomplished with book two of The Stormlight Archive. Not only was Words of Radiance nothing like I'd feared, it was everything I hoped for . . . and far, far more. Sanderson really does take the story to the next level here, offering some satisfying resolutions to several story threads, while spawning (and twisting) new ones beyond its pages. Things happen here - events of consequence - all leading up to a climax that really does resolve the core plot line of this second volume in an incredibly satisfying manner. At the same time, we've only just skimmed the surface, and the final chapters ably demonstrate just how much more story there is to be fully revealed. At over 2100 pages into The Stormlight Archive, we have some clearly defined story arcs resolved, some stories well told, and more yet to be experienced.


Hardcover, 1087 pages
Published March 4th 2014 by Tor Books

4 comments:

  1. I was actually curious what you thought of this one, since I know you wanted to take your time with it. I tried to as well, and completely failed. Just had to keep reading, especially towards the end. Stunned is probably the best way to describe how I felt as well.

    ~Mogsy

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    1. Sometimes it feels like we're just rushing through one book to get to the next, simply to keep the review pile in check. This was definitely one I wanted to separate from that race and just enjoy . . . and I'm glad I did.

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  2. I may have to take the plunge sooner than later and buy the ebook. No way I am lugging that monster around (unless Tor wants to send me a copy for a late surge of reviews).

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    1. I started with the e-book, but switched over when Tor did indeed send me a hardcover copy. Given all the detail work that went into the presentation, and the sheer amount of Shallan's sketches, it's nice to have a physical copy to admire.

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